Article / SD Times

SD Times: Inside the made-up world of GUIs for movies and TV


Just heard from my editor that this article I wrote for the April print issue is now the top story on their website!

SD Times April 2014
Movie GUIs: Cracking the code
Inside the world of those who conjure up the computer screens you see in theaters and on TV
By Alexandra Weber Morales

“Star Trek.” “2001.” “Minority Report.” This is just a short list of movies and TV shows that have created indelible cultural images of computer technology. Today, that list is growing at what seems like an exponential curve, as our obsession with computers, tablets, smartphones and software surges. Diving into what all this code means about our relationship to software is an anthropologist’s dream.
On Jan. 2, 2014, London-based computer scientist and scientific history buff John Graham-Cumming tweeted a shot of code from the 2013 movie “Elysium” next to its mundane origins. The plot centers on a dystopia in the year 2154, so it’s ironic that the code used to reboot the space station is in fact assembly language from the Intel Architecture Software Developer’s Manual, Volume 3. Come to think of it, will systems still require a reboot in 2154? Will “Intel inside” still be a meaningful advertising slogan? Will anyone still program in assembly?
Codespotting takes off
After his tweet went viral, Graham-Cumming, author of “The Geek Atlas” and the man behind a successful petition requesting the British government’s apology for its treatment of Alan Turing, started Source Code in TV and Films. The blog contains images of code he and others submitted, along with succinct explanations of their origins.(Related: More about Graham-Cumming’s blog)

Some are funny, such as the shots of eBay’s website CSS code used to illustrate “very dangerous hacker activities” on a television show. Similarly, in the 2005 movie “Stealth,” robotic fighter planes (that would perhaps be called drones today) rapidly become sentient. An image of the planes’ artificial intelligence source code turns out to be raw TeX/LaTeX markup for nonsensical mathematics equations.

Also spotted masquerading as complex code are an Apple version control system, an XML parser, code for a WordPress admin screen, and languages including Delphi (Pascal), Visual Basic, Python, JavaScript, C++ and PHP.

Movie code

All this software speaks to a change in perception, Graham-Cumming believed. “I think programming has become a bit cooler than it used to be. Using computers or writing code is used as a core part of the plot. You see people configuring things or writing custom code, and programming is seen as an interesting activity.”

Smoke and mirrors
Not all code seen on TV can be forensically traced to some innocuous command-line screen or markup text, however. Increasingly, software depicted in movies is custom-built by a Chicago-based design team.
One of only two main U.S. producers of fake movie and TV GUIs, Twisted Media is a creative collective founded by visual effects designer Derek Frederickson, who parlayed a background in interactive CD-ROMs in the 1990s and guided multimedia presentations into an accidental—and highly successful—career in creating multimedia for TV shows.
It all started with an e-mail in 2007. “It’s just blind luck. What got me launched is ‘Leverage,’ ” he said. “The pilot of that show was shot here in Chicago. I got a random e-mail from the visual effects supervisor’s assistant saying, ‘Can you do graphics?’ The executive producer was Dean Devlin, who wrote ‘Independence Day’ and ‘Stargate.’ He’s a hero of mine. I ended up having the interview and got the gig. I worked on ‘Torchwood’ because the producer was on season two of ‘Leverage.’ Now I’m working on three prime-time shows.”The spy gadgetry and high-tech interfaces Frederickson’s become known for weren’t done as post-production green-screen replacements. Rather, he created on-set computer graphics that actors could interact with live in the filming of 77 episodes of TNT’s “Leverage.”

All of the interactive pieces are Adobe Flash, with plenty of work done in Photoshop, Illustrator, Cinema, Maya, Max and After Effects for various graphic, animation and 3D modeling tasks. But the task of coming up with a compelling design falls squarely on Frederickson’s team.

“Depending on the director, we may get a lot of input or next to none—and with most of them, it’s none,” he said. “ ‘Make it awesome, make it cool,’ and if it’s not quite cool enough we make it again.

“One of the characters that I worked with for years on Leverage was Hardison, the hacker. Sometimes the writers would simply write, ‘Hardison hacks.’ We got to a point in the show where whatever he does, we would just make it up.”

Unless they’ve been cleared for commercial use, the interfaces pictured in TV shows and movies must be original. “I make sure I have rights, or I make it from scratch,” said Frederickson. “Hardison always had his own OS.”

The square that appears on the home button of an iPhone must be greeked out, while all the smartphone’s icons look remarkably realistic but are original. The once-famous Microsoft “Blue Screen of Death” can’t be used, so something similar has to be created. Another facsimile was a game that was similar to Words With Friends, which was played over the course of several episodes. According to Frederickson, “I had to design the game for phones, iPads and computers, and pre-program it so it would finish the way the script said.”

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